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Archive for May, 2010

Published in The Guardian on May 19, 2010.  Click here or read below:

There are many ways to define poverty, but we shouldn’t allow the debate to distract us from helping the poor

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a construction worker named Lakshmi while taking a walk in Mumbai. She was on a much-needed break, and I was feeling chattier than usual. Lakshmi told me that she moved to Mumbai 10 years ago with her husband, and that they gave birth to two lovely children before he died last year. When he died, she could no longer afford rent for their single-room flat, and was soon after evicted. Today, she and her children live under a blue tarp tent with patchy electricity, no running water and few physical assets to their name. She earns Rs 120 (£1.80) every day she works at the construction site. Most of her wages are used to purchase groceries, with which she usually cooks thin rotis and watery lentils.

Is Lakshmi’s family poor?

According to the government of India, she is not. Since her income is technically sufficient to provide her family three meals a day, her household is above the nationally defined poverty line.

To Lakshmi, this means a lot.

Below poverty line households are issued distinctive cards with which they can acquire heavily subsidised rice, wheat, sugar and paraffin. Her family is instead classified as “above poverty line”, which allows them fewer subsidies. Needless to say, additional handouts would help Lakshmi tremendously.

Lakshmi’s plight speaks to a larger issue, one that has plagued policymakers for years. How should a country define a reasonable poverty line? How should it decide who is truly downtrodden and hence deserving of government handouts? (more…)

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Published in The National on May 10, 2010.  Click here or read the text below:

It is a muggy Monday morning in a small town in Kerala, India. The local bank is about to open. Outside its doors, under the shade of a coconut palm, sit a dozen customers waiting to withdraw funds from their NRI (non-resident Indian) bank accounts.

These accounts, kept jointly with their children in the Gulf, are replenished at regular intervals. With this money, these customers will pay for many of their household expenses.

This scene can be replicated, with minor variations, across Kerala and beyond. If all these instances are amalgamated, the cash withdrawn equals 3 per cent of India’s current GDP. It is a staggering figure, one that sheds light on how important foreign remittances are to India’s everyday functioning.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the southern state of Kerala. Earlier this decade, foreign remittances, most of which originated in Gulf countries, constituted 22 per cent of the state’s economy.

As a result, “some parts of Kerala simulate the Gulf countries”, reads a 2009 report from published jointly by Mangalore University and Gulf College. The consequences of remittances, the report claims, can be felt across most spheres of life, including the economic, political, social and even religious.

While many of these changes may seem positive at first – Gulf remittances have, for example, been the driving force behind improving some hospitals and airports – have they helped the recipient communities grow equitably? Has economic growth been sustainable and fair? (more…)

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When I googled "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," this is the first image that came up (it's from http://www.idiomsbykids.com)

When I arrived at Mumbai’s international airport in July 2006, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Wait, scratch the “bright-eyed” bit.  Before leaving home, I somehow decided that half of my books were “too precious” for check-in luggage, leaving me to run through the airport with the weight of a baby camel on my back (don’t you love short layovers that force you to sprint down endless corridors?). On the first leg (New York-London), I was seated next to a loud and pungent Russian woman, and on the second (London-Mumbai), in the middle of a rambunctious Punjabi family.  I don’t remember exactly what happened, but there was definitely some bad singing and spiked orange juice involved.  In any case, I arrived at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport anything but bright-eyed.

But oh, was I bushy-tailed.

I had big plans for India.  I was so earnest about living and working in the Motherland, I get embarrassed just thinking about it.  Over my proposed two-year stint in management consulting, I was planning to “develop the toolkit” required to “address the most pressing social issues of our generation.”  I would learn everything about economic development from the private sector, after which I would infiltrate the social justice world with orgasmic insights.  Basically, I came to India to solve poverty.  And maybe injustice too, if I decided to work weekends sometimes.  And in the process, I was going to love and cherish India like no one ever had.  I was going to become one with with my surroundings — and not in the leathery hippie kind of way.

Well, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans.  Anyway.  Back to the airport.

It was 3am Indian time, and I had finally gone through immigration and found my bags.  It was time to search for the Auntie and Uncle who were to be my hosts for the next three days.

Ordinarily, I would have stayed in my company’s guesthouse, but for some reason, it was fully booked for the first three days I arrived.  In retrospect, I should have just rebooked my ticket.  But no, at the time, I was adamant about coming on the day I had decided in my head.  I boldly told HR that I would “figure something out” for those initial three days.  I don’t really know what I was thinking, since I had no family or friends in Mumbai.  Hell, I had never even been there!  My family tried to talk sense into me, but I wouldn’t hear any of it.  “But-but-but,” I whined, “don’t make me start my new life three days later than planned!”

Several frantic phone calls later, my parents found someone to take me in.  I’m still not sure what the connection to this family was — I think they were my aunt’s father-in-law’s college roommate’s best friend’s dogwalker’s niece, or something — but I was grateful that these perfect strangers had an extra sofa where I could sleep.

As soon as I met them, I got the sense that they weren’t quite normal, but I was so tired that I let the feeling pass.  At any rate, I was concentrating more on how overwhelming my new surroundings were.  The pre-monsoon air was sticky and thick, and I had forgotten what a shock India can be on your olfactory nerves.  Taxi drivers were energetically vying for our attention with an out-of-tune chorus of, “Madam, madam, madam.”  I felt like everyone was staring at me (which, in retrospect, they probably were, since Indians love to stare).  I just needed a moment for it all to sink in.

(more…)

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